Last week I met with a new client who struggles with perfectionism and she mentioned that she had recently decided to watch a movie late on a “school night”, even though she “knew better” and when she found herself tired at work the next day her logical conclusion was “I’m bad.” I’m bad as in, “I’m irresponsible, I’m not trustworthy, I make bad decisions” etc.
Hearing the order of events (watch a movie late → feel tired next day at work → conclude badness) it felt like she took a huge stratospheric leap between step A and C. And yet, this is a leap I hear women make all the time. Every week they lay their sins at my feet as evidence of their personal failings.
Here are just a few of the things that women I’ve worked with have told me is evidence of their personal, innate ‘badness’:
- I ate the second box of cookies even though I knew I wasn’t hungry
- I lashed out at my partner who was just trying to help me.
- I missed an important deadline at work.
- I’m fat.
- Unbeknownst to me, I used an offensive term that hurt someone.
- I talked down to a friend of mine.
- My kid hit another kid at school.
- I bought a new pair of shoes when I don’t really have the money for them.
- I went on a date with someone I really liked but then they didn’t want to go on a second date with me.
- I’m (insert age) years old and I still haven’t (insert life achievement) yet.
- I don’t know how to ask for what I want in bed.
- I didn’t speak up at my annual review and ask for the raise I know I deserve.
- I was sexually assaulted and didn’t report it.
- I just quit a well-paying job and don’t know what’s next for me.
- I don’t want kids.
- I didn’t vote in the last election.
- I haven’t saved for retirement.
- I’m, according to my doctor, ‘obese’
- I just had to buy a bigger pants size.
- I tried to do Whole30/Weight Watchers/Paleo and fell off the wagon.
- I laid on the couch all weekend watching reruns of Seinfeld.
- I have a partner who earns enough that I don’t have to work and so I don’t work.
- I had work to do but I took a nap instead.
- I slept with the guy on the first date even though I didn’t really want to.
- I have a to-list a mile long and instead of doing anything productive I went to the movies
- My house is filthy
And so it goes. On and on.
As you can see it’s pretty easy, by these measures, to be ‘bad’
So what’s wrong with labeling ourselves as bad?
It’s a dead-end.
It asks of us no curiosity or compassion. It leaves no room for nuance or humanity.
And importantly it doesn’t engender a different outcome, should you want that, next time.
There is nothing that inspires me less to make changes than feeling bad about myself. I have never and will never change my behavior in a lasting and wholesome way as a result of feeling like I’m not enough or because I berated myself.
Nevermind that it’s not true. “I am bad” is not an accurate description what’s going on and why we act the way we do.
So if we’re not bad then what are we? What’s the alternative?
We are human and the alternative is to look at ourselves through the lenses of compassion and curiosity.
When self-compassion has seeped into our bones and we’ve found ourselves nestled firmly amongst the family of bumbling humans something extraordinary happens: “because I’m bad” either ceases to be an option for explaining anything or it scarcely makes an appearance. (I’ll get into what replaces it down below.)
If “I’m bad” or some variation of it still show up on your list of possible explanations for your behavior, choices, life, experiences, or appearance then today I’m inviting you to, at least temporarily, in the name of experimentation, remove it. (Seriously, what if you couldn’t explain anything with that?!)
If you ask me what my work is about I will mention “hungers” and “women” and “feasting on your life”, but at the root, my work is really about how we relate to ourselves. When we are in an allied relationship with ourselves we trust our hungers and seek to feed them. When we are in an oppositional relationship to ourselves we mistrust our hungers and seek to numb, deny or minimize them.
This most essential relationship, the one we have with ourselves, also determines the lens through which we view all of our actions. If we’re not on the same team as ourselves, if on the inside we’re both the ‘good guy judge’ and the ‘flawed bad guy’ then “I’m bad” is a common conclusion to make.
When we’ve come to see that all parts of ourselves are welcome, that all parts of make sense, that there is no bad guy, and that we’re no better or worse (though equally special) to all humans we no longer find “I’m bad” on the list of ways to explain our actions.
So what happens when “I’m bad” isn’t an option?
What you find is a whole host of doors open up. You find immense compassion not just for yourself but for every human who is also wading through the muck of life.
It’s important to note that this isn’t a get out of jail free card. This isn’t how we justify behaving badly. This is how we see nuance. This is how we get to the root of what’s going on and what it means to be human. This is how we gain deeper insight into our own patterns and increase our sense of choice.
So, you might be wondering: “If I’m not bad then what’s going on?”
The most common answer, in my experience, is nothing.
Nothing is going on because the action is something any normal, imperfect human might do. Try it on for size: “I did X because I’m human. The end.” In these cases the only thing that needs to change is us embracing our own humanness, seeing ourselves within the family of humans, and holding ourselves to more human standards.
This one most often comes up around productivity and rest. The need for more sleep.The never-ending to-do list. The dirty house and unfolded laundry. All of these are typical areas for women to label themselves as lacking, when in fact, they are just human. Regular human, not superhuman. Join the club.
Other ways you might explain or interpret your behavior that don’t assign core not-enoughness include:
- Because…I’m hurting and I didn’t know a better way to cope with it. (humans hurt sometimes and we don’t always use or have a robust coping toolkit)
- Because I’m scared. (humans get scared)
- Because I was checked out. (humans do that sometimes)
- Because I wasn’t informed/awake. (humans have blind spots)
- Because I was/am struggling to balance two or more competing needs. (humans have a lot of layers and often our needs rub against each other)
- Because I was caught in my own illusions. (being human = egoic illusions that need to be worked through)
- Because I was chasing love/safety and part of me thought I could find it if I did X (humans need love and safety and will do a lot of stuff to get any semblance of it.)
- Because I was trying to live up to an unrealistic, inhumane standard. (humans, especially women humans, are expected to live up to a lot of impossible stuff)
- Because I goofed. (humans goof up)
- Because I was triggered (humans get triggered)
- Because I was tired (humans get tired)
- Because I behaved badly. (humans do that sometimes)
I’m not saying that given a do-over you wouldn’t, sometimes, go back and do some things differently. I am saying that there needs to be room for you to be human and for your very human actions not to be interpreted as you being deficient, bad, lacking, or not enough in any way.
Who you are is not what you do. What you do is a result of being an imperfect human with the level of consciousness, connection and healing you have at a given moment.
This means I can reject your behavior and not be rejecting you.
This means you can behave ‘badly’ and not be ‘bad’
This shift in lenses also means, again, that we can have a better understanding of why we behaved in a certain way and then have more space, thanks to compassion, to either accept ourselves or make a different choice next time.
There is no part of you that’s the enemy, that can’t be trusted, or that’s out to get you. There are just parts of you to be understood better, listened to more deeply, possibly healed, and ultimately, and always, loved.
If you want to know where to find these unwelcomed parts of yourself, here are a few places to look:
- Where do you feel less than other people or commonly compare yourself only to find most often that you rank below others?
- If I asked you to tell me all the ways you’re not living up to where you should be, what would you say? Where would you say you fall short? (I hope it’s clear I would never seriously ask you this question)
- Straight up: in what areas are you a bad mother, wife, friend, daughter, employee, etc.? (again, not a question I would ask because I disagree with the premise, but a good one to spark your awareness)
Your answers to all three of these questions will shed light on places you might offer some more compassion towards, you might let go of superhuman expectations, find a loving motivation to make changes, or simply seek to understand before you condemn.
I highly recommend the following books if this is a topic that feels alive for you:
“Get into extended triangle pose, Utthita Trikonasana” my yoga teacher says.
Everyone in the class moves to assume the position.
“I say each asana in Sanskrit because we believe that the poses, in their original language, have energy” she explains.
And so it goes, every Sunday morning that I get myself there, first in English and then in Sanskrit. One way so we understand, another way so we feel it.
Life coaches are sticklers for language too. We’ve learned that our words have power. We’re trained to listen for the subtlest energy behind the words our clients speak.
This past week I was having a one-on-one session with a Feast student and she told me she was struggling with mindfulness. She said she was planning to start practicing on the coming Monday when she finally had a break in her busy life.
(An aside: yes, this does sound a lot like “I’ll start my diet on Monday”)
As I listened I noticed that every time she said mindfulness, a word I had not used in my teachings, it felt sterile and heavy, burdensome even. She talked about mindfulness like I might talk about taxes, root canals, or going to the DMV. If she was selling mindfulness I was not buying.
Mindfulness isn’t a word I use a lot for this very reason: the concept and practice have become an aspirational buzzword and measure of moral ranking. It’s now common belief that like exercise, morally superior people practice mindfulness.
I want no part in that.
Don’t get me wrong. The years of mindfulness study that I’ve undertaken through the Insight Meditation community, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Zen Buddhism, and via the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Cheri Huber, Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg, Pema Chodron (just to name a few) has transformed me, my heart, and my life.
But the word generally doesn’t connect with me.
So I interrupted her and said: “What if we replaced ‘mindfulness’ with ‘experiencing’ or ‘engaged experiencing’?”
With that simple switch, everything shifted for her.
She felt lighter and excited even. After all, she wanted to experience her life, her food, her emotions, her relationships. She wanted to experience what was happening. Yes, this is what mindfulness practice is all about, but by changing the verbiage a resistant student became an eager student in a matter of minutes.
This got me thinking about what other words I shy away from or have found more resonate alternatives for. Here’s a short list of my favorite switch-ups:
‘But’ negates everything that comes before it. ‘And’ honors what comes before and it allows you hold two, sometimes opposing, truths. ‘But’ divides. ‘And’ includes.
My math teacher assigned exercises. Exercise feels militant. Exercise feels rote. Exercise feels like it has a right way and a wrong way. Exercise reminds me of all the physical education and compulsive workout trauma of my past. ‘Movement’ feels spacious. You can’t do movement wrong. Movement sounds fun.
Contracted: Overweight or Obese
Expansive: Fat, Larger-Bodied, Plus-Size
Over what weight?! Who says what’s over and under? ‘Overweight’ implies a problem and ranks bodies, yet healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. ‘Obese’ and ‘obesity’ have become weaponized words, after all, we’re at ‘war’ against them, right?
If we want to live in a society that respects all bodies without stigmatizing, moralizing, or shaming then these words need to go. Within the size-acceptance community there are still disagreements about what terms are acceptable, but the alternative words I’ve listed above are a good place to start. Yes, you can call someone ‘fat’ without it being an insult. Fat is not a bad word.
Expansive: Could, Want to, Feel obligated
If I have a ‘should’ you can bet I’m going to resist doing it. In addition to inciting rebellion, ‘should’ also carries with it judgment: “If you’re good, you’ll do the ‘should’, if you’re bad you won’t.” Should also doesn’t feel empowered. The hope is, whenever it’s possible, we move from a place of choice, of desire, of hungers seeking to be fed. My response to clients who feel a ‘should’ on their shoulders is “But what do you want?”
Contracted: Food & weight numbers
Expansive: A vague description with no numbers
When we share how many minutes we ran on the treadmill, how many cookies we ate, our new pants size, or how much weight we’ve gained/lost we too easily incite comparison. In a society obsessed with achieving control over our body and under the illusion that if we only apply more discipline we can shrink, harden, and purify our flesh specific numbers are fuel for the fire. Good thing we don’t need them. We can easily tell the story of our morning at the gym, our experience at the pastry shop, or what happened in the clothing store fitting room without including specific numbers.
How about you? What words feel heavy, antiseptic, or robotic to you? What words feel layered with judgment, assumption, and morality? Lastly, what word swaps could you make that would free up energy, create forward momentum, and feel more respectful, more aligned with what you values?
Hop on over to my Facebook page to join the conversation.
What are you truly hungry for? What feeds you?
If you’ve been around my work for a while you’ve heard me ask that question.
And yet, it’s so rare that we ask ourselves or that other people ask us.
I ask this question so often because it is the gateway to a well-fed life.
When was the last time someone asked you want you want or what feeds you?
When was the last time you paused to ask yourself?
For most women I talk to it’s been a while. I good long while.
Sometimes we’re scared of the silence and stillness that is required to hear an answer.
Sometimes we’re scared that the answer will be something painfully impossible to achieve.
Sometimes we’re scared that to listen to our hungers is to hear just how needy we are.
Sometimes we’re scared that no amount could ever fill us up, that we’re a bottomless pit.
Sometimes the safer bet just seems not to ask ourselves at all.
Well, I’m here to ask you.
I want to know what feeds you.
I want to know what you long for.
I want to know what kind of tending you need.
I want to help you feel safe in the asking, safe in the listening, and safe in your pursuit, however slow or small, of a well-fed life.
One of the tools I’ve come up with to explore this question and support us in well-fed living is the Fulfillment Pyramid.
If you want play along, grab your Fulfillment Pyramid Kit, a pen, some paper, scissors, tape or glue, and any craft supplies you enjoy and watch the rebroadcast:
Here are the questions I ask in the video:
: What induces an exhale for me?
: What do I get envious of and what does this tell me about my life and hungers?
: You get the best version of me when…
: What restores when I’m drained is…
: When I’m full/filled up what I most like to expend that energy on is…
: A well-fed life composed just for me is/includes/looks like…
: I start to feel not like myself when I haven’t…
: My body is most happy when…
And here are the areas of your life that I invite you to think about your fulfillment:
: Physical Environment
I’d love to hear about your experience making a Fulfillment Pyramid. Snap a photo and tag it #fulfillmentpyramid. Send me your photo to be added to the reader gallery. Drop me an email and let me know what this activity revealed for you.
Above all, remember this: your hungers are wise and they always point toward a life that not only feeds you, but a life that allows you to be engaged in and of service to the whole of life. Hungry women can’t serve nearly as well as well-fed women. Fill up.
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.” — Toni Morrison
I grew up just outside Washington, D.C. My dad worked for the government and as lobbyist (not a dirty word all of the time) for most of my life. The paper versions of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal were at the breakfast table every morning (is my privilege showing?).
I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Political science and spent three of my college summers interning in D.C. including in the U.S. Senate. I wrote my thesis on charter schools.
Certainly I wish someone had grabbed me by the shoulders and said “Hey! Rachel! Snap out of it! What are you doing majoring in political science?! You know yourself, you should be a psychology major with an art minor. Obviously.”
Alas, no one held that intervention, it was a slog to the end of those four years, and it took me a bit longer to find my true path. One of the results though is that political engagement remains a core value of mine and never has it been more tested than now.
The truth is that since January I’ve been riding these two waves: periods of intense engagement followed by periods of intense burnout and overwhelm.
I believe that when the ground is shifting underneath us and the aftershocks (or subsequent earthquakes) haven’t ceased, feeling shaky is to be expected. It’s normal is we don’t yet know what the new normal looks like.
That said, I also believe that each of us, especially the privileged among us, needs to be committed to sustainable civic engagement. I say ‘sustainable’ because, as so many have said, this is a marathon and not a sprint. So the question I’m left with and that I pose to you is “What will allow me to be engaged and active in a sustainable way?”
My answer, so far, has been: activism + art.
This equation that’s working for me right now.
This equation is what’s keep burn out at bay.
Here’s what this looks like in practice:
- Attend my local Indivisible meeting
- Paint protest postcards.
- Call my representatives.
- Sewing for my niece.
- Create a fundraiser for causes I believe in.
- Try a new recipe.
- Sing my protest.
- Play with Sculpey.
- Watch Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin break it down. (Then watch Rachel Maddow)
- Sew some more.
This is the dance I’m trying to do: make my activism infused with art or following my activism with creating of any kind. The goal is to fill my tank, which creating does for me in spades, so that I have something to give to the resistance.
It’s worth noting that the label “artist” ignites many people’s imposter complex.
“Who me? An artist? I don’t think so!”
All humans need to make. Creative expression, no matter the form, is available and essential to everyone. The forms of art that I have been playing with (sewing, painting, cooking, etc.) are the ones I’m called towards. Let what you’re called towards, let what you make, be enough. This isn’t about being Picasso. This isn’t about making perfect things. This is about making because the act of making renews us.
On the protest front, if you’re still not sure what actions to take but want to be part of the resistance you can check out this beginner’s guide I put together back in January. It’s chock full of resources and places to start.
I’d love to hear what’s working for you? What’s allowing you to find your path to sustainable engagement? What’s filling your tank? What are you making these days? Pop on over to my Facebook page and share your experience.
I believe the most powerful force in the world is an embodied woman.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of forces working against women having deeply rooted, peaceful, and trustworthy relationships with their own flesh. These forces are cultural, governmental, sometimes parental, and always patriarchal.
I’m committed to helping change this and it’s easier than we might think. We don’t need to change those systems as much as we need to stop participating in them. We need to opt out. We need to see through the paradigm of body shaming, body loathing, body shrinking, body judging, body comparing, body manipulating, body commodification, and body warfare.
Why? Because there is nothing wrong with women’s bodies. The pursuit, or rather obsession, to fix, change, improve, conform, and hide the female body is draining invaluable resources: women’s mental, emotional, and physical energy.
We need that energy. We need those resources.
But before we can stop the leak, we need to know our story.
What is our personal body story? What is the story we tell ourselves about our body and intimacy? What is the story we replay about our body and its ability, or disability? What is the well-worn story we have about our body and food? We have to lay bare our body stories so we can see what parts no longer fit or feel true, and let them go.
It has taken years and years to heal and rewrite my own body story. There is no forcing what’s not ready to fade away. It took me so long, in part, because I was ashamed that as a smart, educated, capable, conventionally attractive, privileged feminist I struggled with my body. I had to look at my story; the one where people like me didn’t have a right to struggle too.
Your story is likely different than my story. Or maybe, in parts, it’s similar.
Regardless, your story matters. Your ability to author and revise your story matters.
I mentioned a few months back that I was developing a workbook is an invitation to explore the story you’ve been carrying about your body, to let go of the parts that don’t belong to you, and to move into a truthful, compassionate, and sovereign narrative. Well, today it’s here!
Your body is yours, despite all the forces conspiring from the day you were born to tell you otherwise. The Body Sovereignty Workbook will help transform the story you tell yourself about your body into a life-changing narrative. It includes 83 beautiful digital pages of essays by 10+ women’s empowerment experts, worksheets, and activities to support your cultivating an empowered relationship with your body. In addition to my own writings collected from the best of my archive, contributors include Carmen Cool, Julie Daley, Caroline Dooner, Mara Glatzel, Summer Innanen, Hilary Kinavey, Dana Sturtevant, Willo O’Brien, Andrea Scher, Bari Tessler, and Pace Smith.
And here’s the best part: 100% of profits from The Body Sovereignty Workbook will be donated to Emily’s List and The National Center for Transgender Equality.
If you’re not familiar with these organizations. EMILY’s List is committed to driving progressive change throughout our country by winning elections that put pro-choice Democratic women into office. The National Center for Transgender Equality is the nation’s leading social justice advocacy organization winning life-saving change for transgender people.
When you purchase The Body Sovereignty Workbook you’ll get to select which of these two charities you’d like your funds to go towards. The base cost for the workbook is just $10 and you you have the option to make a larger donation if you’d like. Again, 100% of the profits go to these two organizations.
If you’re ready to explore your body story and to move towards greater body sovereignty I hope you’ll grab your copy of The Body Sovereignty Workbook today. I’d also be grateful if took a moment to share this post with your community so that we can generate as much support for these organization and as many sovereign women as possible.
Image credit: Nu debout de face (1910-11), Roger de La Fresnaye